A cure for cancer? What if?

We’re a little taken aback by the front page of the Raleigh News and Observer website today…


Basketball is king in North Carolina — and at Duke specifically — but the real news story from Duke today doesn’t involve basketball: Polio cures cancer, at least it has for several people.

CBS’ 60 Minutes broke the story last night that stands out as “amazing” despite our natural cynicism for declarations in the fight against cancer.

And, to be sure, the Duke researchers involved aren’t using the “cure” word. But those whose brain cancer disappeared with the polio virus injections certainly are.

For the last 10 months, CBS has been following the experimental therapy, in which a modified polio gene — modified so it wouldn’t reproduce — “wakes up” the body’s immune system to attack cancer.

Drop what you’re doing and watch these two segments.

cancer_1 (Video link)

cancer_2 (Video link)

  • MrE85

    It’s promising. But cancer is such a complex disease — many diseases, really — that I wouldn’t put it on page one just yet. There have been other promising leads before that didn’t work out. Please, let me eat my words and be totally wrong about this. Nothing would make me happier than to see the disease that took my little sister gone for good.

  • Gary F
  • jon

    I recall a headline from a while back “Aids Virus cures cancer!”

    Found an article (not the one with that exact headline unfortunately): http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/experimental-therapy-trains-immune-cells-hunt-kill-blood-cancers/

    Seems like modified viruses are going to be a big part of our future medical technology… I suppose technically they already are, at least in vaccines (modified to be weak or dead).

    If a virus could be modified to train the immune system to hunt cancer cells that could almost be administrated as a vaccine for those who have a high risk of cancer, and maybe some day every one would receive a “cancer vaccine.”

    Some days it really feels like we are living in the future…
    other days it seems like we are living in the past, what with people being infected with polio in the US.

  • Jay Sieling

    I’ve had two god friends succumb to the ravages of glioblastoma, the brain cancer that was featured in last night’s 60 Minutes piece. This therapy seems to hold great promise – hope. My two friends were foremost in my mind as I watched and marveled at the development and implementation of this study. I found myself wishing we could turn back the clock so Mike and Eric could have been in on this study. Perhaps the outcome would not have changed. But perhaps it would have. I certainly hope the positive results continue. I’ll keep rooting for Duke. I might even cheer for the basketball team.

    • jon

      You know I might start watching college basketball if they came out with an announcement that some of their players were also the researchers that cured cancer.
      I doubt that to actually be the case though…

  • Jeff

    I saw the 60 Minutes last night (including the basketball lead-in) and was astounded. I lost a loved one to cancer and wonder if she could have been saved in the near future. A few things occurred to me:

    – “It takes many years of hard work to be an overnight sensation”.

    – I don’t think any of this would have been possible until very recently. A lot of technologies that had to come together to make this happen. Genetic engineering, medical imaging, computers and a whole lot of basic science that our tax dollars fund that people don’t appreciate.

    – There are a lot of really smart people (much smarter than I am) who work doggedly mostly unrecognized except in their own community. We lionize athletes, entertainers, and people like Kim Kardashian (still not sure what she ever did), but who makes the bigger difference in the world?

    – Lots of good ol’ Yankee ingenuity and thinking outside the box.

    – Never throw anything away. We probably could have eradicated polio (and the smallpox virus for that matter).

    • One factoid that impressed the heck out of me was that the person who was able to rejigger the police virus, had been working on it for 25 years. Imagine the dedication it takes to work on something for 25 years, just to find out IF the idea works, but with absolutely ZERO guarantee that it would?

      • MrE85

        Which is another reason why funding of basic science is so important to us all.

  • They didn’t put it into words… but they were clearly indicating that this might explain the rise in western countries of cancer. It could be that while polio is a horrific disease it was helping trigger our immune system to cancers, and that after we cured polio we may have left ourselves unprotected from cancer. It’s very interesting indeed. We’ll have to re-infect ourselves with weekend polio to cure the cancer. Who’d have thunk?!

    • That a cure for polio led to an increase in cancer? I didn’t get that out of the piece at all.

      I thought they did a good job explaining that cancer’s insidiousness is that “hides” itself from the body’s immune system. I didn’t see any link at all in the piece that polio and the incidence of cancer is in any way connected.

    • jon

      I can see how you could try to read that between the lines, but I don’t think the relationship is as strong as you might be suggesting.

      The “Rise in cancer” in the last century has been accompanied by a fall in “death by natural causes” (which means “they were old, and we don’t know exactly what killed them.”)

      Two things need to happen for the number of cancer deaths to increase 1) people need to live long enough to get cancer and 2) we need to know that they died from cancer. Cancer doesn’t just effect the very old, but some 89% of all cancer occurs in people over the age of 50, and living past 50 with out ending up having your death labeled as “natural causes” wasn’t terrible common more than a century ago (especially if you died slowly over the course of years, withering away like many cancers would cause when untreated).

      As for our ability to identify cancer related deaths, Germany figured out what cancer was during WWII and even linked lung cancer to smoking, though most of that was lost after the war (seen as German propaganda) and it took the rest of the world 10-20 years to catch back up with where they were as far as cancer research.
      By the time we had a solid grasp on diagnosing cancer we also had the vaccine for polio.

      Also unlike the aids virus article I posted above where they taught T-cells to hunt cancer cells, this was more the polio virus being used to damage the cancer cells in a way that they could be seen by the T-Cells, infecting them with something our immune system knew how to hunt already. So it wouldn’t be a matter of having ever been afflicted by polio, it would be one of being constantly re-exposed to it while cancer cells are growing, and having them infect the cancer cells in your body which seems unlikely if you had polio as a child (and thus build up an immunity) that the virus would make it as far into your body as your brain before it was identified and your immune system kicked in to attack it.

      • Wow, yours is about the only intelligent reply I’ve ever gotten to something I’ve posted on Discus! Well done! Regarding your argument, I’m not suggesting it was the entire cause, just part of it. What I’m suggesting is that perhaps having weakened polio virus floating around your system, that could only take hold in weakened cancer cells is important in keeping up a robust immune response to cancer. By killing it off almost entire across the entire population, we may have robbed our immune system of an important indicator to other diseases. Even after having fought off other disease like Chicken pox, the virus is still in your blood and still can mount an attack when you’re weak… Maybe that interaction is important, and simply killing of the virus entirely, is bad? It’s just a guess. It will be interesting to see how all this turns out… now to just avoid brain tumors for the next year or 2…

        • You need to stop by more often. This is a really good comments section here.

  • Is anybody watching the Ken Burns doc on cancer this week? I’m generally not a Ken Burns fan but last night’s episode was amazing.